Oceano battles against transparency
March 3, 2012
By KAREN VELIE
Oceano’s attorney is advising district staff break the Public Records Act and not allow the public legally mandated access to district records.
The California Public Records Act is a powerful tool used by reporters and the public to uncover governmental shortcomings and illegal activities.
Yet, the legal counsel for the Oceano Community Service District has recommended that district manager Tom Geaslan break the Act in order to reduce “frivolous records requests.”
The Act requires records such as budgets and board meeting minutes be available for viewing at the district office during working hours, does not permit the district to require requests in writing and requires no charge for copies of files held electronically and provided in emails.
Geaslan, however, has taken the position the district will provide no records for viewing before a 10 day waiting period and requires requests be made in writing.
In addition, the district often refuses to send free electronic copies as required by the Act and instead sends the documents as certified mail at a cost of both time and money to the financially strapped district.
When an Oceano resident asked to see the board minutes from 2003 through 2005, she was ordered by district staff to make a written request and an appointment. When Giselle Naylor arrived in late December to view the records after she contends she made an appointment and a written request, Geaslan said there was no written request and that Naylor could not see the minutes.
The two argued and Geaslan called the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s department and had Naylor arrested.
The case against Naylor was eventually thrown out with the district working to have her barred from the building.
District Counsel Molly Thurmond, with the San Luis Obispo based firm of Hall, Hieatt & Connely, advises the district not to provide electronic free copies of records as required by law in order to dissuade public records requests.
“I think if you start electronically providing some, then people think they can just request anything and they’re entitled to it in the form they want,” Thurmond said in an email to the district. “In truth, making people pay is a sort of built-in deterrent so you don’t get frivolous requests. Again, don’t be handing out drafts, notes, working documents. ”
However, Terry Francke, the director of CalAware and an authority on the freedom of information laws, said that the public is “in fact entitled to any (non-exempt) information they want in the form they want — if the agency has it and uses the information in that form.”
In addition, Francke said notes and drafts are required to be available to the “public unless they meet the definitions of exempt records, which issue has to be determined on a request by request basis.”
District officials regularly point to the district’s small staff and lack of hours as the reason for violating the Public Record’s Act. Critics, however, contend that requiring requests in writing, appointments and refusing to send electronic copies in favor of certified mail is more time consuming then just complying with the Act.
Today, Thurmond is conducting a Brown Act and Public Record’s Act workshop at the Oceano district office slated to teach district officials the legal requirements of the Acts.